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  • Sunday ,23 January 2011

Economy key to Mubarak son presidency bid

By-Hamza Hendawi/ AP

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Sunday ,23 January 2011

Economy key to Mubarak son presidency bid

CAIRO: Though he still delivers a speech like an aloof corporate executive announcing quarterly profits, the son and presumptive heir of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is busy remolding his image into a populist who can deliver prosperity for the struggling population in this key US ally.

The popular uprising that toppled Tunisia's authoritarian president this month has exposed the risk Arab regimes run if they don't work fast to tackle such potentially explosive economic ills like unemployment and rising prices of food and other basic goods.
The gravity of the threat facing them was bluntly put by the Arab League's outspoken head Amr Moussa in an address on Wednesday. "The Tunisian revolution is not far from us. The Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration," he warned, addressing Arab leaders meeting in Egypt.
Tunisia, ironically, was an economic darling of the West and cited as a model for other Arab states. But it came with an unsteady foundation: high unemployment, corruption and tight controls on freedoms.
Egypt, largely following economic policies initiated and pushed by Gamal, also has seen high growth rates, but they have yet to trickle down to average Egyptians who have endured soaring prices.
The economy is the strongest card that Gamal holds in his bid to succeed his father as leader since he has little popular base and no experience in the military, the source of Egypt's presidents since the end of the monarchy nearly 60 years ago.
But now all Arab leaders feel increasing pressure to address poverty and social ills head-on.
The ambitious economic reforms Gamal has engineered in the 10 years since he launched his political career have fueled strong growth but largely failed to improve the lot of the poor majority of Egyptians, benefiting mostly the small clique of businessmen surrounding him.
At a recent ruling party conference, Gamal sought to strike a man-of-the-people persona, touting his experiences touring rural areas and speaking to ordinary folks.
"The concerns, problems of Egyptians and the need to raise their standard of living will remain and continue to be our main preoccupation and the pivotal part of our party's endeavors," he told party delegates in a nationally televised speech last month.
Gamal's father has ruled Egypt for almost three decades, and uncertainty over the leadership's future has never been higher. The 82-year-old Mubarak underwent surgery to remove his gallbladder a growth on the small intestine last year, raising questions about his health.
The elder Mubarak has not yet said whether he will run in presidential elections this fall as many political analysts believe he will.
If his father does run — but is unable to finish another six-year term — the picture gets murkier.
Gamal would still be the main potential replacement, but he faces opposition among some in the old guard of the ruling party and the military who question whether he has the political and security clout to run the country.
A New Year's Day bombing against a Coptic church in Alexandria that killed 23 people could heighten those doubts. The attack sparked riots by Christian protesters and highlighted the potential turbulence in this North African nation of 80 million people.
The elder Mubarak, a former air force chief, has built a reputation as a strong hand, especially with his ruthless suppression of an Islamic militant insurgency in the 1990s.
Gamal, in contrast, may look like a lightweight to some party hands. One close ally in the party, Gehad Ouda, disputes that, arguing that any president grows into the position.
"Once you're strategically positioned in the job of the president, you take charge," said Ouda, a senior member of the party's Policy Committee, headed by Gamal. "Being effective on security issues is among the requirements of the job and it's something you acquire on the job."
As he leaped up the ranks of the National Democratic Party over the years, the younger Mubarak has avoided confirming or categorically denying he intends to seek the presidency.
The most concrete sign came last year, when thousands of posters went up around Cairo touting him as the best choice for future president — but the campaign, believed linked to party members, fizzled.
His credentials as the guide of Egypt's economy suffered a setback when food prices soared in 2008 and street protests over low wages, unemployment and a higher cost of living grew in frequency.
Still, the younger Mubarak touts the fruits of his liberalization reforms: creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs over the past five years, economic growth that reached 7 percent — and even after the global economic turndown has kept a respectable 5-6 percent pace — as well as steep rises in the salaries for state employees.
Where Gamal Mubarak has made few promises is on political reform to loosen the authoritarian hold of his father's regime.
He and his senior party ally, steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, tried to give the ruling party a modern, democratic facade, promoting younger figures and adopting techniques like internal polling and stylish ad campaigns.
But in parliamentary elections in November and December, the party fell back to tried and true methods: rampant ballot box stuffing and fraud. Its top rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, was purged from parliament along with almost all other opposition parties, creating a near total-NDP legislature.
Government critic Ibrahim Eissa, ousted last year from his position as editor-in-chief of a leading independent newspaper, says economic reform won't work "without political reforms that allow transparency, a peaceful transfer of power and accountability."
The military remains the "key stumbling block" for the younger Mubarak to be president, according to leaked US diplomatic memos released by the WikiLeaks website.
They conclude that Hosni Mubarak might be able to install his son if he does so before his death and steps aside. If the elder Mubarak dies in office, however, the succession scenario becomes "messier," with no guarantee of military support for his son, the memos say.
"Talk about the military opposing a Gamal Mubarak presidency is now closer to fact than speculation," said Eissa, the analyst. "Even his own father will not step aside for him because in the third world it is very difficult for anyone in power for 30 years to give it up."